In an ongoing television ad campaign, a brash, business suit-clad male character embodies the notion of chaos. Lying on a snowy garage roof, he personifies the weight of the accumulated snow and falls through, landing on the car inside. In another version, he rattles through a list of what one gentleman’s day will look like: a flat tire, a speeding ticket, a conflict with his spouse and an unfortunate bout of food poisoning. The ads are meant to promote the necessity for better insurance, but the notion of chaos — life out of control — leads to a more common theme for all of us: stress.
University of California, Berkeley psychologist Richard S. Lazarus put forth one of the most widely accepted definitions of stress as “a condition or feeling experienced when one perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”
What does it take to eat away at your psyche? Starting a new job might be a truly exciting experience for one person, yet wholly overwhelming for another. What if the new job requires you to relocate? And what if it starts right after the baby is born, the family pet dies and you are still caring for a sick parent? All of a sudden, that joyous new job moment has become rife with excess stress.
In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe surveyed more than 5,000 people to measure the resulting health consequences of 43 different experiences they named Life Change Units (LCUs). They weighted each LCU for stress using a scale of zero to 100: taking a vacation was rated 14, an outstanding personal achievement rated 28, marriage (50) and the death of a spouse (100). They found the higher the score and the event’s weight, the more likely the study participant was to become ill.
Stress and the Body
But few people end up in a doctor’s office to say that their life is out of control or they feel stressed out. Instead, they report indigestion, chest pain, bowel troubles, headaches, muscle spasms, sleeplessness, anxiety, irritability or a range of other problems. Many of these symptoms are a result of the body’s increased level of cortisol, the stress hormone, in conjunction with adrenaline. These hormones account for our body’s “fight-or-flight” response, a critical, reflexive survival tool that served us quite well at a much earlier time in history.
Today, extended elevation of cortisol levels can have serious health consequences. Increased cortisol levels can lead to excessive weight gain, undesired weight loss, emotion-driven eating, elevated blood sugar (with an increased risk for diabetes), decreased immune system function, lowered fertility, increased blood pressure and a worsening of allergies. Meanwhile, this chemistry imbalance can also affect one’s emotions, leading to depression, anxiety and more.
Recognition and Resiliency
Recognizing that stress can be a major cause of physical and mental illness can lead to practical coping strategies, lifestyle changes, and an increase in our ability to bounce back from challenges. Our goal is to create a personal toolbox for stress management, including breathing techniques and meditation, regular exercise, better nutrition, good sleep hygiene, a reduction in alcohol, drug and tobacco use, effective boundary setting, embracing mistakes (and learning from them), and the overarching realization that there’s a difference between caring about something versus worrying about it. We’re not likely to banish stress completely. But how we learn to manage it can make an enormous difference towards a healthy life.